The FAA and the age old question, how hard are they on people? The answer may vary by opinion but basically, as hard as they need to be. I must say, I am always a little surprised by people who say things like “No, I’m not flying commercially, if they ask I’m just shooting for fun” or “Of course I don’t follow the regulations, they can’t do anything to me.” Some folks (including some good friends of mine) may be up against the wall right now and not even know it.
I’m a commercially licensed pilot and have been since 1997. I’ve been dealing with the FAA since I was 14 years old six years prior. I’ve learned a thing or three and I try to share my knowledge and experience with every aerial operator I can find who will listen. The first rule of Flight Club. 1. Never talk about Flight Club! Are you the guy who loudly tells everyone that you fly drones for lots of cash? Brag to everyone about your aerial conquests? Post every project on your website, YouTube, Google+, Facebook and Twitter? Don’t! Just because the FAA is not breaking down doors and taking everyone’s gear doesn’t mean they aren’t watching, closely. If you think you are untouchable and that you don’t have to obey the proposed regulations, you may have a rude awakening. Yes, you need to put your work out there and yes, it feels great when you complete an amazing project and you want to share it with the world but, is it worth the un-wanted attention? I can’t verify but, I’d be surprised if the FAA is not taking notes. They know who is blatently bragging about the long range high altitude flight they just made for that new website’s commercial or who advertises that they will shoot for any job. High altitude? Noooo problem! People crowded into a festival? How much do you pay? These are the people who will lose everything when the FAA Regulations are implemented, if not before.
The fact of the matter is, nearly everyone who is using drones for commercial operations is a bit of an outlaw (or pioneer if that makes you feel better). Yes, even you. There was not a great system in place to handle the explosion of this industry. The FAA tried to keep a cap on it, not to be downers but to keep people safe. If you think about the number of people taking to the skies each day with their drones it’s truly amazing we don’t have more major incidents! People, for the most part, are behaving. We need to continue to ensure we show that we can operate within the confines of the law. Do not think for a second that one big incident won’t ground people so fast we won’t even know what happened! The FAA is used to having a very tight reign on the US airspace, I promise that they are not just relinquishing it without a thought. Do you log your maintenance? flight time, inoperative components, flight routes? Many more people are doing this to some degree thanks in part to flight logging systems like the one aboard the DJI Inspire 1. Most however, are not.
Think of it this way: let’s say you have an incident and a police report is filed. When they look into it wouldn’t you rather have those records to show you maintained your aircraft and tracked your experience as well as areas of operation? Overall it just shows you are detail oriented and when it comes time to defend yourself and explain what happened they will respect you more than the operator who couldn’t tell you the last time they changed a prop, much less how many hours they flew last month or the last discharge rate and general health metrics of their batteries. If you ever pay attention to the preflight check of an aircraft you will be boarding you know that a lot goes into ensuring the safety of that aircraft. I can tell you first hand that it is pored over with a fine tooth comb. Each system is visually, audibly and tactically inspected, some multiple times. This occurs everytime that aircraft leaves the ground. Every single INOP component is noted, if the radio is not working it’s ok, there are several more but it is listed INOP, called into dispatch and signed off before those wheels leave the ground. In a short time you will be held to the same standard as a pilot of a Boeing 777. Sure, you might not always get the respect that the pilot gets but, if you have an incident the FAA will expect you to be just as thorough, detail oriented and aware as Sully Sullenberger. Are you ready for that Cap? I hope so because it’s time to get going. Everyone one of us should have been doing this already.
There are several apps out there like RPAS Logger to help you out. It will seem a bit intensive at first but, if the FAA ever comes looking for answers, you will want to buy me a beer! The last thing I will touch on is this: commercial pilot types are generally highly trained professionals who have dedicated a lifetime to the art of safely piloting a huge hunk of metal through the sky to a far away destination, and most of us are pretty good at it. A lot of people however are washed out. It takes a certain person to dedicate their life to flying. You must be a highly driven self starter who works great in a team environment, but has no problem doing everything themselves if need be. It’s difficult for some to not grow complacent over the years. You just can’t allow it in full size or RC aircraft, it is not an option. Pilots are interesting people, most of us live life planning for disaster and thinking what we will do to cheat death. We are pleased when it does not come to that but, you better believe when it does, no matter where you are, if there’s a pilot in the same room you’d be wise to follow his lead. I guarantee that guy has a gameplan!
If you show up for 16 years and there’s no major incidents I promise when you drop your guard an incident will find a way in and that is no accident. You as a commercial operator will need to emulate people who have had a lifetime to learn and develop good habits, and truth be told, you don’t want to hone that skill while the FAA is breathing down your neck. Learn it now! Log your flight time, mission, routes, INOP components and maintenance/up keep. Change out a motor? Write it down. Notice that your hex is vibrating more than normal? Log that too, it’s just good practice! Finally, please, please, follow all proposed regulations! I’d be lying if I said I don’t consider the things I know now when I climb into the cockpit. I encourage everyone to dig into the FAA Regulations (FAR/AIM) and brush up on some aerodynamics and flight basics. Establish a log system and build preflight, inflight and approach/landing checklist. Nearly every drone has a set of these made by someone. Log any discrepancies in funtionality, even if it doesn’t nescessarily affect flight and don’t be too scared to call ahead 24 hours or more to report flight operations in areas you know may have low level airtraffic like the coast line, fields that get crop dusted and even near hospitals where air ambulances may be arriving or departing. Better yet avoid these areas whenever possible. If you are operating anywhere and hear a low flying aircraft or helicopter, immediately land and stay there until the aircraft has departed the area. Seek knowledge out, whether you learn best by doing your own research or do best in a group, find what works best for you and get ready to soak in the knowledge because there’s a lot to learn.
Finally, use common sense – if you feel that buzzing the Statue of Liberty might get you a stellar shot but could also get you in trouble, you are probably right on both counts! Listen to that gut of yours. If it seems it might be wrong to do what you’re thinking of doing, it probably is! Safe flying and beautiful results to all. If you would like to ask me anything or would like to see a specific topic discussed drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.